In now her third film with writer/director David O. Russell, Jennifer Lawrence takes the lead and commands every scene in Joy, a film inspired by real-life stories of strong-willed, innovative, and entrepreneurial women who fight through every conceivable obstacle and setback to make their singular visions into remarkable realities. Visually inventive, emotionally raw, and like most films by Russell, populated by complex, sometimes paradoxical characters, the film never fails to enthrall and entertain, while also delivering a powerful message about love, perseverance, and the importance of remaining true to one’s self, even when beset with the worst of life’s difficulties.
Lawrence plays the titular character, Joy Mangano, who in her early 20’s finds herself already divorced, raising her two children virtually on her own while her ex-husband, Tony (Edgar Ramirez) continues to live in her basement and chase his dreams of being a musician. She’s also forced to tend day and night to her agoraphobic, soap-opera addicted mother Terry (Virginia Madsen) and temperamental father Rudy (Robert De Niro), who at the outset of the film gets kicked out by his second wife and moves back into Joy’s house. Seemingly stuck in a dead-end, thankless job as an airline reservation attendant, and faced with stress and drama not only in her waking hours but also in her dreams, which take the form and expression of the daytime soaps Terry can’t tear herself away from, Joy sees the younger version of herself, the girl who used to spend her days envisioning and inventing things, slipping away entirely in the face of all her familial and practical obligations, and feels powerless to do anything about it.
The one voice in Joy’s life constantly reminding her to not let go of her true self and her dreams is Mimi (Diane Ladd), her maternal grandmother, who also lives in the Mangano home and sees all that Joy tries to keep up with at the cost of her own goals and aspirations. Joy also has in her corner her childhood friend Jackie (Dascha Polanco), who serves as a confidante and somewhat objective perspective, being on the outside of the Mangano family drama.
When Joy finally reaches her tipping point and resolves to take control of her life by attempting to make one of her inventive, problem-solving visions a reality, it’s Mimi, Jackie, and a surprisingly supportive Tony who prove to be her strongest supporters and advocates. The invention, a self-wringing mop meant to revolutionize kitchen cleaning and housework, faces its fair share of skeptics: Rudy, his new girlfriend Trudy (Isabella Rosellini) whose inheritance from her late husband Joy comes to count on for launching the new product, and Peggy (Elisabeth Röhm), Joy’s half-sister, who questions not only the vision behind the product but also Joy’s worthiness of being trusted with Trudy’s money or anything business-related. Despite the doubts of those around her, her ongoing responsibilities as a mom to her children, and the many problems that pop up once she actually gets her mop manufactured and must find a way to market it to retail stores and the public, Joy pushes forward. Just how she manages to turn an invention almost no one believed in into the launching point for a business empire, as depicted here, is quite simply the stuff American dreams are made of.
In many ways, Joy proves to be the ultimate vehicle for Jennifer Lawrence to showcase her versatility and talent as a performer. Russell’s script demands that Lawrence portray Joy across a span of decades and through a range of emotional extremes as she faces test after test of her vision and resolve, many of which come from within her own family, where one would think would be a source of support, not constant trial and stress. Not surprisingly for one of today’s most acclaimed actresses, Lawrence proves up to the challenge, projecting in her every scene, her every word and gesture, authentic and relatable emotion. There isn’t a moment in the film that you’re not rooting for Joy, and you may, depending on just how emotional you get in dramatic films, just find yourself sharing her tears as well as rejoicing at her triumphs. For the film to work, beyond any of Russell and director of photography Linus Sandgren’s innovative lighting and staging of particular scenes, especially the dream sequences set in a soap-opera-esque world, beyond the fine work of anyone else in the cast, audiences have to buy into Joy herself — her love for her family, as difficult as they make it for her at times, her determination, her heartbreak, her toughness in getting back up after each setback or betrayal. Thanks to Lawrence, buying in should not be a problem.
Speaking of supporting performances in Joy, there isn’t a single weak link in the chain as far as the cast arrayed here, but there are a few that really come off as memorable. De Niro is a welcome presence in David O. Russell’s films, whether the roles are large or small (he’s appeared in each one since Silver Linings Playbook, along with Lawrence and Bradley Cooper), and this time out is no exception, as he’s asked to play the sometimes lovable, sometimes horrible Rudy. While there really are no “one-note” characters in any of Russell’s previous work and certainly not in this film, De Niro’s task in bringing Rudy to life is significant considering he’s playing a father who really does think he’s a good guy and a good dad, when most of the time that just really isn’t the case. The veteran actor makes it look effortless; thus, Rudy’s interactions with Joy are among the film’s most emotional and difficult to watch. Elisabeth Röhm’s work also stands out here in a role that anyone who grew up with a sibling considered to be brighter or more talented and thus treated differently can relate to, while Virginia Madsen is almost unrecognizable in the best possible way as the fearful, virtually shut-in Terry, who can barely tear herself away from her room and her shows to go to the bathroom. It may sound comical, but the root of her fear, the motivation behind her retreat into a world of superficially-heightened drama, is all too understandable once it’s revealed, and Madsen delivers it all fearlessly.
It is important to note again that while the film story for Joy is mostly drawn from events in the life of the real Joy Mangano, it really is a composite of the experiences of a number of women who fought to make their inventive and entrepreneurial dreams into realities, which should only add to just how inspirational a film this could be for anyone, man or woman, watching who has dreams of their own, but finds them seemingly always out of reach thanks to the intrusions of “real life.” In that way, arguably it’s an excellent choice of film to enjoy at Christmas time, a time when love, faith, and family should be at the forefront of celebrations, no matter how challenging those values may be at times. But that’s just one reason to see it, one among many. See it if you’re a fan of Russell’s previous films, or you’re a fan of powerful, character-driven storytelling and film in general. See it if you’re a fan of the cast, particularly Jennifer Lawrence. Just see it — yes, it’s not as flashy and sexy as American Hustle or as traditionally romantic as Silver Linings Playbook, but in its own way it’s every bit as satisfying in terms of entertainment, and so it’s very unlikely you’ll be disappointed.
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Edgar Ramirez, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini, Elisabeth Röhm and Bradley Cooper. Directed by David O. Russell.
Running Time: 109 minutes
Rated PG-13 for brief strong language.